The Crime and Punishment of Galileo Galilei

The Crime and Punishment
of Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) looms as a pivotal figure in the Scientific
Revolution and in the history of modern science. His great renown and
importance for this story derive from several sources and accomplishments. His improvement of the telescope, his astronomical discoveries,
and his research on motion and falling bodies brought him international fame and an enduring place in the annals of science. No less
striking is Galileo’s career as a Renaissance scientist, reflecting as it
does deep changes in the social character of science in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. And his infamous trial and recantation of Copernicanism at the hands of the Catholic Inquisition is a notorious
chapter in relations between faith and reason, which contributed to the
slowly emerging recognition of the value of intellectual freedom.
Galileo, Court, and Telescope
Galileo’s life and career unfolded in clearly demarcated stages. Born in
Pisa and raised in Florence, throughout his life Galileo maintained his
identity as a Tuscan. His father served the Medici court as a professional
musician. Galileo attended the university at Pisa as a medical student,
but he secretly studied mathematics, and eventually the father consented
to his son’s pursuit of the more socially vague career of mathematician.
After a brief apprenticeship, and through patronage connections, at age
25 Galileo secured a term appointment at the University of Pisa in 1589.
At this stage Galileo followed the medieval model of a career in mathematics and natural philosophy institutionalized in universities. He
toiled diligently as a university professor of mathematics for three years
at Pisa and then, again through patronage connections, from 1592 at
the University of Padua in the republic of Venice. As professor of mathematics at Padua, Galileo endured a lowly status in the university, earning only an eighth as much as the professor of theology. He lectured
daily and disconsolately during university terms on a variety of subBertoloni, M. D. E. I., Dorn, H., & McClellan, J. E. I. (2006). Science and technology in world history : An introduction. Retrieved from
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jects—astronomy, mathematics, fortifications, surveying—and came to
feel that teaching interfered with his ambitions to conduct research: “It
is a hindrance not a help to my work.” To make ends meet, Galileo
boarded foreign students and took in others for private tutoring. He
employed an artisan to manufacture a “geometric and military compass”—the proportional dividers that he had invented and sold to engineers and architects. In Padua he took on a long-term mistress, Marina Gamba, with whom he had three children. Galileo was a devoted
father. He had red hair, a short temper, a mastery of language, a gift for
mockery in debate, and a liking for wine. All in all, until he stumbled
onto the telescope—or better, until the telescope stumbled onto him—
Galileo was a hardworking, low-paid, disgruntled, relatively undistinguished professor at a second-rate university. He was already 45 years
old in 1609 when he suddenly achieved fame and immortality.
A Dutchman named Hans Lipperhey invented the telescope in Holland in 1608. In Padua Galileo heard a report of the “toy” and that
was evidently enough for him to understand the concept of the telescope and to craft one. Galileo ground his own lenses of Venetian glass.
His first attempt resulted in an eight-power telescope, which he soon
bettered with models of 20 and 30 magnifications. Galileo’s renown
stems from his boldly turning his improved spyglass to the heavens and
discovering a fabulous new celestial world. He rushed into print in
1610 with the 40-page pamphlet Sidereus nuncius (Starry Messenger)
and, with a job-seeker’s instincts, he dedicated it to Cosimo II de’Medici,
the grand duke of Tuscany. In his Starry Messenger Galileo announced
the existence of myriads of new stars, never before seen by anyone,
making up the Milky Way. He showed that the moon, far from being
a perfect sphere, was deformed by huge mountains, craters and valleys,
and that it may well have an atmosphere. Most spectacularly, Galileo
revealed that four moons circled Jupiter. The previously unknown
moons of Jupiter indicated that other centers besides the earth or the
sun existed around which bodies could orbit. Recognizing their importance and their potential for his career ambitions, Galileo unashamedly
named these four moons the Medicean Stars.
The first telescopic discoveries did not involve simply pointing the
telescope to the heavens and instantaneously seeing what Galileo
reported. We should not underestimate the difficulties or the early disputes that arose over interpreting the visual images presented by the
telescope, conceptualizing new astronomical entities, and the acceptance of the telescope as a legitimate tool in astronomy. Galileo could
“see” the mountains on the moon only by interpreting the changing
shadows they cast over a period of weeks; and he could “see” the moons
of Jupiter only by similarly observing their changing positions by careful and protracted observations. As a result, Galileo’s marvelous discoveries soon became incontrovertible, and they brought to the fore the
question of the true system of the world.
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Galileo craftily parlayed his new fame as an international celebrity
into a career move from the University of Padua to the position of Chief
Mathematician and Philosopher (with a handsome salary) at the Medici
court in Florence back in his native Tuscany. He had long wooed the
Medicis, tutoring the crown prince (turned Grand Duke Cosimo II) for
a number of summers. The appointment culminated a ritualized negotiation between client and patron. Having presented his telescope to
the Venetian Senate, receiving a salary increase and life-tenure at the
university in Padua in turn, Galileo burnt his bridges to Venice by accepting the court post in Florence. He wanted the more prestigious position and the time to pursue his own work, free from the burden of teaching undergraduates. For its part the Medici court added another star
to the heavens of its reputation, and someone with nominal engineering expertise who might do useful work. Galileo’s title of philosopher
elevated his status, putting him on par with his professorial adversaries,
and it raised the status of his mathematical natural philosophy. With
his move from Padua to the court at Florence, Galileo fashioned himself as a scientific courtier.
Galileo’s career displays a new pattern for the organization and pursuit of science at the turn of the seventeenth century. He was a RenaisCRIME AND PUNISHMENT OF GALILEO GALILEI 225
Fig. 12.1. Galileo’s Starry
Messenger. In his famous
pamphlet published in
1610, Galileo depicted
the results of the observations he made with the
telescope. He showed,
contrary to accepted
dogma, that the moon
was not perfectly smooth
and had mountains.
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sance scientist, albeit a late one, the equivalent in science of Michelangelo in art, and like his Renaissance compeers, Galileo Galilei is known
universally by his first name. That Galileo left traditional university life
underscores how much this new “Renaissance” mode differed from
medieval university-based precedents. His Aristotelian opponents
remained intellectually and institutionally rooted in universities, while
his own science found its arena among the public and in the courts of
the great.
Universities were not active seats of change in the Scientific Revolution, and Renaissance courts and court life provided the key new setting for science. One can usefully distinguish between the court itself,
where the ruler and his retainers did business, and full-fledged states
that later developed more elaborate bureaucratic apparatus, of which
the court formed only a part. An entire patronage system arose, especially in the courts of Renaissance Italy, which provided a new, historically significant means of social support for science. Medici court patronage shaped Galileo’s career and his science, while patronage
forthcoming from the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, had supported Tycho and then Kepler at Prague as Imperial Mathematicians.
European courts employed varieties of experts: artists, physicians, surgeons, alchemists, astronomers, astrologers, mathematicians, engineers,
architects, projectors, surveyors, and cartographers. In offering courtbased patronage and support, patrons certainly sought useful services
and were motivated mainly by the hope of gaining practical results. But
Renaissance patronage represents a social and cultural system that involved much more than patrons “purchasing” useful services. Such
exchange constituted a small part of a patronage system that flourished
in aristocratic cultures and that entailed hierarchies of “clients” and
patrons. For example, patrons accrued glory and enhanced their reputations by supporting glorious clients. Patrons also stirred up controversies, and Galileo became embroiled in several that began as arguments at court. As a social institution, the court patronage system
legitimated and helped define the social role of science and scientists in
the seventeenth century. The pattern of Renaissance court patronage
and court-science seen in Galileo’s career did not die out in the seventeenth century, but continued into the eighteenth. Even Isaac Newton
became drawn into a controversy (over historical chronology) through
his role as a courtier attending the Hanoverian Princess Caroline.
Renaissance academies complemented courts as new institutions for
science. Appearing in the fifteenth century as outgrowths of the humanist movement and the spread of printing, hundreds, indeed thousands,
of literary and fine arts societies sprang up wherever the educated gathered across Europe over the next three centuries. Private salons and
informal associations of amateurs proliferated not only in opposition
to university Aristotelianism, but also because of a limited number of
university positions. Renaissance-type academies characteristically op226 EUROPE AND THE SOLAR SYSTEM
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erated with formal constitutions, but they usually lacked official charters certified by the state. The patron often played the essential role,
and many Renaissance academies proved unable to survive without
active promotion by the patron.
Renaissance science academies represent a late manifestation of the
humanist academy movement. Two early anti-Copernican academies,
dating to 1550 and 1560 and both called Accademia degli Immobili
(the Academy of the Unmoved), may have been the first to concern
themselves directly with science or natural philosophy. Naples was a
center of esoteric knowledge, and the Neapolitan magus Giambattista
Della Porta (1535–1615) organized an early experimental society, the
Academy of the Secrets of Nature (Academia Secretorum Naturae or
Accademia dei Secreti) in Naples in the 1560s. A volume of curiosities
and wonders, Magia naturalis (Natural Magic), published by Della
Porta in 1558 and again in 1589, probably reflects the interests and
activities of Della Porta’s academy. (More than fifty editions and translations of this influential work appeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.) Although Della Porta’s dabbling in magic brought
the scrutiny of the Inquisition, which forced him to disband his academy, he enjoyed a sizable reputation for his learning, and he received
patronage offers from numerous courts.
The next Renaissance academy to concern itself with science was the
Accademia dei Lincei (1603–30). The Accademia dei Lincei (or Academy of the Lynx-Eyed) appeared in Rome in 1603, patronized by
Roman aristocrat Federico Cesi. Della Porta was an early member, but
after 1610 the Lincei, led by Cesi, shifted to Galileo’s more open
approach and program for science. Galileo became a member of the
Accademia as part of a triumphal trip to Rome in 1611, and afterwards
he valued his title of Lincean academician and used it proudly in print.
In turn, Cesi and the academy published several of Galileo’s works,
including his Letters on Sunspots (1613) and the Assayer (1623). The
Accademia provided a key extra-university institutional prop upon
which Galileo erected his career as Renaissance courtier and scientist,
and Cesi’s untimely death in 1630 and the collapse of the Accademia
dei Lincei left Galileo without important support when he came to trial
in 1633. In the long run the Renaissance-style social pattern exemplified by Galileo’s career gave way to one centered on the nation-state
and on national scientific academies. In the meantime, particularly in
Italy, the Renaissance court provided a notable home for scientists.
Galileo, Copernicus, and the Church
Galileo’s was always a contentious personality, and as soon as he moved
from university to court he became embroiled in disputes with adversaries in Florence. He brought with him controversies surrounding the
telescope and what it revealed, and he promptly quarreled with ArisCRIME AND PUNISHMENT OF GALILEO GALILEI 227
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totelian opponents over the physics of floating bodies. In these controversies university academics were Galileo’s main opponents, and at
issue were points of science and Aristotelian natural philosophy. The
telescopic discoveries soon put the Copernican question at center stage,
and all too quickly theological objections emerged, bringing a whole
new class of enemies for Galileo—the theologians. Already in 1611 his
name had come up in Inquisition proceedings. Some Dominicans publicly preached against him in 1614, and in 1615 zealous souls actively
denounced Galileo to the Inquisition. Although nothing came of these
first accusations, the bureaucracy of the Inquisition opened a file with
his name on it. Well before his trial and conviction in 1633, Galileo in
some sense had already become a prisoner of the Inquisition.
As his star began to shine more brightly at the Medicean court,
Galileo preached Copernicanism evermore strongly. The Starry Messenger promised that a later book on the system of the world would
“prove the Earth to be a wandering body.” His Letters on Sunspots followed in 1613 with further telescopic novelties concerning spots at or
near the surface of the sun, the changing shape of Venus as it makes its
orbit, and curious news about the planet Saturn. The discovery of
sunspots in particular challenged the purported incorruptibility of the
sun, and Galileo would later use the phases of Venus as definitive evidence against the Ptolemaic system. In the Letters on Sunspots Galileo
asserted that his observations “verified” Copernicus’s De revolutionibus. A dispute arose at the Medici dinner table in late 1613 over the
religious implications of Copernicanism and apparent conflicts with literal interpretations of the Bible. Out of this dispute came Galileo’s
courtly but provocative “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”—the
mother of his patron—“Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in
Matters of Science” (1615). In this work Galileo took the position that
faith and reason cannot be in contradiction since the Bible is the word
of God and nature is the work of God. However, in instances where
there appearsto be a contradiction science supersedes theology in questions concerning nature, for, as he put it, the Bible was written to be
understood by the common people and can readily be reinterpreted,
but nature possesses a reality that cannot be altered. For Galileo, if scientists demonstrate some truth of nature that seems to contradict statements found in the Bible, theologians must then articulate reinterpretations of the literal sense of Holy Writ. (This is essentially the position
of the Catholic Church today.) Galileo’s postulate that science and the
human study of nature should take priority over traditional theology
represents a radical step, much removed from the medieval role of science as handmaiden to theology, and one almost calculated to provoke
the animosity of theologians. Especially offensive was his insufferable
arrogance in counseling theologians in the conduct of their business.
Galileo actively defended Copernicanism and led a vigorous campaign to persuade church authorities to accept Copernican heliocen228 EUROPE AND THE SOLAR SYSTEM
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trism over the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic worldview to which religious and
scientific thought had long been wedded. In 1616 Galileo’s position lost
out when the Inquisition ruled Copernicus’s opinion erroneous and formally heretical, and the Congregation of the Index placed Copernicus’s
De revolutionibus on the list of books banned by the church. Robert
Bellarmine (1542–1621), ranking cardinal of the Inquisition and elderly
defender of the faith, wrote that he had understood (from Osiander’s
preface) that Copernicus posited heliocentrism merely as a mathematical conceit to facilitate astronomical calculations. Since God in his
omnipotence could make the heavens go around in any of a thousand
ways He pleased, it would be dangerous, said Bellarmine, to set human
reason above divine potency and clearly stated biblical language unless
clear proof existed that the Bible was mistaken.
On the surface Galileo managed to keep his name out of the proceedings that condemned Copernicanism in 1616, and indeed Bellarmine
and the Inquisition afforded Galileo the honor of prior notification of
the decision. Different versions have been proposed for what actually
transpired at Galileo’s meeting with Bellarmine on February 26, 1616.
The Inquisition secretly specified steps to be taken (up to and including imprisonment) if Galileo refused to accept the verdict of church
authorities as communicated to him not to hold or defend Copernican
views. It seems evident that Galileo must have immediately acquiesced,
but nevertheless—either in 1616 or at some later time—an irregular,
possibly forged, notarial document, one that would come back to haunt
Galileo, found its way into the Inquisition’s files indicating that a specific personal injunction had been delivered to him “not to hold, teach,
or defend [Copernicanism] in any way whatsoever, either orally or in
writing.” For his part, Galileo obtained a written certificate from Bellarmine later in 1616 confirming that he, Galileo, merely could not “hold
or defend” Copernicanism, leaving the option in Galileo’s mind to
“teach” the disputed doctrine, even while not exactly holding or defending it.
Galileo lost in 1616, but life went on. He was over 50, but still
famous and still a Medici luminary. Copernicanism remained off-limits, but other scientific subjects engaged his interest and other quarrels
developed. In 1618 a controversy erupted over three comets observed
that year, with Galileo drawn into a bitter intellectual brawl with a
powerful Jesuit, Orazio Grassi. Their pamphlet war culminated in
Galileo’s Assayer of 1623, sometimes labeled Galileo’s manifesto for
the new science. The timing for the publication of the Assayer proved
propitious, for in 1623 the old pope, Gregory XV, died and a new pope
was elected, Urban VIII—Maffeo Barberini, a Florentine himself and a
longtime friend of Galileo. Prospects looked bright, and the Assayer
seemed to be the perfect vehicle for Galileo to establish patronage ties
at the highest level in Rome. The Accademia dei Lincei published the
Assayer with an effusive dedication to Urban, who had the book read
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to him at mealtimes. The new pope was delighted. He showered presents on Galileo, who was sojourning in Rome for six weeks in 1624,
and invited him for promenades and discussions in the Vatican gardens. Apparently in that context Galileo asked for and received permission to revisit Copernicanism. Regarding the projected work, Urban
insisted, however, that Galileo provide an impartial treatment of the
Ptolemaic and Copernican systems and that he stress the point that
God could move the heavenly bodies in numberless ways regardless of
appearances, and, hence, humans cannot detect the true causes of
observed events. Urban’s involvement in shaping Galileo’s opus extended even to its title. Galileo had wanted to call it On the Tides, to
highlight his theory that the earth’s motion causes the tides and that,
hence, the tides confirm that motion. Urban immortalized the work
with the title, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, a title meant
to imply an impartial review of the two planetary theories.
Eight years followed before the Two Chief World Systems appeared
in print in 1632. By then in his 60s, Galileo was ill during much of the
time it took to write the work. Delays ensued in securing the required
approvals and licenses, as anxious censors and officials in Rome and
Florence gingerly processed the manuscript. When it finally issued from
the press in Florence in late February of 1632 Galileo’s book was a
bombshell for more reasons than one.
First and foremost, the Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems
made the clearest, fullest, and most persuasive presentation yet of arguments in favor of Copernicanism and against traditional Aristotelian/
Ptolemaic astronomy and natural philosophy. Galileo wrote the work
in Italian for the largest popular audience he could reach, and he cast
it as a literary dialogue among three interlocutors, Salviati (who in
essence spoke for Galileo), Sagredo (who represented the interested,
intelligent amateur), and Simplicio (the “simpleton” who staunchly
voiced Aristotelian views). A spirited and accessible work of literature,
the “action” unfolds over four “days.” In day 1, using evidence concerning the moon and other new telescopic discoveries, Galileo developed a devastating critique of traditional Aristotelian notions of place,
motion, up and down, and the venerable distinction between the celestial heavens and the earth. In day 2 he treats the earth’s daily rotation
on its axis and deals with apparent conundrums, such as why objects
do not go flying off a spinning earth, why we do not experience winds
constantly out of the east as the earth spins, why birds or butterflies
have no more difficulty flying west than east, why a dropped ball falls
at the base of a tower on a moving earth, and why a cannonball flies
the same distance east and west. His explanations hinged on the idea
that earthbound bodies share a common motion and seem to move only
relatively to one another. In day 3 Galileo moves on to consider the
heliocentric system and the annual motion of the earth around the sun.
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Among an array of arguments in favor of Copernicanism and heliocentrism, Galileo introduces his “smoking gun” against Ptolemaic astronomy, the phases of Venus. Seen through a telescope, Venus changes its
shape like the earth’s moon: a new Venus, a quarter Venus, “horned”
Venus. The upshot of Galileo’s technical point is that the observed
phases of Venus are incompatible with the geocentric Ptolemaic system. The phases did not prove Copernicanism, however, for the observations are consistent with the Tychonic system, too; but Galileo
brushed Tycho aside. Last, in day 4 of the Dialogue, Galileo offers what
in his own mind represents positive proof of the Copernican system,
his idiosyncratic account of the tides. His explanation: a spinning, revolving earth induces sloshing motions in the seas and oceans and
Fig. 12.2. The crime of
Galileo. In his Two Chief
World Systems (1632)
Galileo presented strong
arguments in favor of
Copernicanism. Written
in Italian as a set of informal conversations, the
work was and is accessible to readers not trained
in astronomy. The book
led to Galileo’s arrest by
the Roman Inquisition
and his subsequent
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thereby causes the tides. He gives an elegant mathematical explanation
for seasonal variations in tides, and he introduces William Gilbert’s
work concerning the earth as a giant magnet.
In assessing the merits of the astronomical systems of Ptolemy and
Copernicus, Galileo adopted, at least superficially, the impartial posture urged upon him by Urban VIII, pretending to treat indeterminately “now the reasons for one side, and now for the other.” He sprinkled his text with the appropriate nonpartisan caveats, saying here and
there that he had “not decided” and that he merely wore Copernicus’s
“mask.” But the sharply partisan character of the work could not be
denied. Not only was the superiority of Copernicus argued at every
turn, Galileo repeatedly refuted Aristotle and made Simplicio seem
ignorant and foolish throughout. To make matters worse, Galileo inserted the language dictated to him by the pope concerning God’s divine omnipotence and the limits of human reason, but only at the very
end of the work and, most provocatively, in Simplicio’s voice as “heard
from a most eminent and learned person.” If Urban had winked at
Galileo back in 1624 when they discussed an impartial treatment of
Copernicanism and the Ptolemaic system of the world, then Galileo
had duly maintained the appearances. If Urban was, or later became,
serious about a balanced treatment, then Galileo mocked him and was
in deep trouble.
Once the Dialogue began to circulate, the reaction was immediate
and harsh. In the summer of 1632, on the pope’s orders, sales stopped,
copies retrieved, and materials confiscated from the printer. In an
unusual move designed either to shield Galileo or simply to frame his
downfall, Urban convened a high-ranking special committee to evaluate the situation. The matter then passed formally to the Inquisition,
which in the fall of 1632 called Galileo to Rome to answer charges. At
first Galileo, now 68, resisted the summons, at one point pathetically
going so far as to send a “doctor’s note” testifying to his inability to
travel. But the Inquisition remained adamant; Galileo would be brought
in chains if necessary. But it was not; Galileo made the trip to Rome on
a litter.
The raw facts concerning Galileo’s trial have been well known for
more than a century, but radically differing interpretations and explanations of the trial continue to be offered down to the present. An
early view—now dismissed—envisioned the episode as a great battle
in the supposed war between science and religion, with Galileo as heroscientist beaten down by theological obscurantism for having discovered scientific truth. Another interpretation, reflecting an awareness
of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, uncovered the essence of
Galileo’s trial in the bureaucratic state apparatus of the Inquisition.
From another perspective, Galileo was simply insubordinate and questioned biblical authority at a time when the church was locked in a
deadly embrace with the Reformation. A further documented but more
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conspiratorial version sees the formal charges stemming from Galileo’s
Copernicanism as a ruse by church authorities to hide a bitter dispute
with the Jesuits as well as other more serious theological accusations
having to do with Galileo’s atomism and with difficulties reconciling
atomism with the miracle of transubstantiation in the Catholic mass.
Others argue that Urban’s papacy had lost much of its luster and was
in political trouble by 1632, and recent accounts evoke a patronage crisis for Galileo and his fall as a courtier. Galileo’s trial is a tablet on
which historians write and rewrite improved versions, similar to the
way legal scholars review and argue old court cases.
Galileo’s trial did not proceed in a wholly straightforward manner.
Galileo first stayed at the Medicean embassy in Rome, and although
treated preferentially, he then had to enter the Inquisition prison like
all persons prior to questioning. He appeared before the Inquisition for
the first time on April 12, 1633, but he was not told of any charges
against him. He rather cockily defended his Dialogue by claiming that,
in fact, he had not sided with Copernicus against Ptolemy, but had
instead shown Copernicus’s reasoning to be “invalid and inconclusive.” The Inquisitors possessed the tainted notarial minute of 1616, so
they thought they had caught Galileo violating a personal injunction
not to deal with Copernicanism in any way. When confronted with this
document, Galileo produced the certificate he had from the late Cardinal Bellarmine that only prohibited him from “holding or defending”
Copernicanism, not from teaching it or treating it altogether.
The Inquisition procured expert opinions that in fact Galileo did
defend and hold Copernicanism in his book, but Galileo’s genuine certificate from Bellarmine remained an obstacle to resolving the neat case
the Inquisition initially envisioned. To avoid a potentially embarrassing outcome, an Inquisition official visited Galileo extrajudicially in his
cell to discuss a compromise: Galileo would be led to see and admit the
error of his ways, for which some slap on the wrist would be imposed.
Appearing next before the Inquisition, Galileo duly confessed to inadvertence and “vainglorious ambition.” Shamefully, after he was dismissed he returned to the Inquisition’s chambers to volunteer to write
yet another “day” for his Dialogue to truly set the matter right.
Alas for Galileo, the compromise fell through, and having obtained
his confession, Urban rejected the Inquisition’s solution and insisted
that formal charges of heresy be pressed against Galileo. Hauled before
the Inquisition once again, Galileo had nothing to say. Threatened with
torture, he said only that he was not a Copernican and had abandoned
the opinion in 1616. “For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you
The Inquisition found Galileo guilty of “vehement suspicion of
heresy,” just a notch below conviction for heresy itself, for which punishment was immediate burning at the stake. Galileo’s Two Chief World
Systems was put on the Index of Prohibited Books, and on June 22,
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1633, this once-proud Michelangelo of Italian science, 69 years old,
kneeling in a public ceremony dressed in the white gown of the penitent and with a candle in hand, was forced to “abjure, curse, and detest”
the Copernican heresy and to promise to denounce all such heretics.
Galileo remained a formal prisoner of the Inquisition under house
arrest for life. Arriving for confinement at Siena in July of 1633, myth
has it that, stepping out of his coach, Galileo touched his finger to the
earth and uttered the words, “Eppur si muove”—“And yet it moves.”
The History of Science Museum in Florence displays the bones of
Galileo’s middle finger, a scientific relic gesturing defiantly at us today.
The trial and punishment of Galileo are sometimes invoked to support the claim that science functions best in a democracy. This claim is
demonstrably false, as some of the least democratic societies have been
and continue to be successful in the pursuit of science and technological advance. The issue, rather, is the independence of scientific communities, regardless of the political context. Where it has occurred, the intervention of political authorities—whether the Catholic Church or the
Communist Party—has inhibited scientific development. Fortunately,
political authorities rarely have any interest in the abstractions of theoretical science. In the Christian tradition only the movement of the
earth and the origin of species pitted natural philosophy against biblical sovereignty. Whether science takes place in democratic or antidemocratic societies has little to do with its development.
Galileo, Falling Bodies, and Experiment
Transferred to his home outside of Florence in December of 1633 and
attended by his daughter Virginia, Galileo turned 70, a prisoner of the
Inquisition, humiliated by his recantation, and already half blind. Remarkably, he did not simply give up the ghost. Instead, Galileo turned
to producing what many judge to be his scientific masterpiece, Discourses on Two New Sciences (1638). In his Two New Sciences or the
Discorsi, as it is known, Galileo published two remarkable discoveries—his mathematical analysis of a loaded beam or cantilever and his
law of falling bodies. The work represents Galileo’s greatest positive
contribution to physical science and to the ongoing course of the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Two
New Sciences also shows other dimensions of Galileo’s genius as an
expert mathematician and experimenter.
In writing the Two New Sciences Galileo did not suddenly begin a
new research program. As might be expected, he went back to his old
notes and to scientific work he had done before 1610, before his first
telescope, before international scientific fame, and before the astronomy, the polemics, and the condemnation. The technical and esoteric
topics Galileo deals with in the Two New Sciences are politically safe
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and theologically noncontroversial subjects involving how beams break
and how balls roll down inclined planes.
The Two New Sciences was published somewhat covertly in Protestant Holland by the Elsevier press in 1638. Like its companion masterpiece, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, the Two New Sciences is set in dialogue form and divided into four “days.” The same
three interlocutors appear as in the Dialogue: Salviati, Sagredo, and
Simplicio, although this time they act less antagonistically and play
somewhat different roles. Whereas previously Salviati clearly represented Galileo, Simplicio Aristotle, and Sagredo the interested amateur,
the three characters in the Two New Sciences more likely represent the
chronological stages Galileo himself went through in arriving at his
mature views concerning mechanics. Simplicio represents his initial,
Aristotelian phase, Sagredo an Archimedean middle period, and Salviati his late views. In the Two New Sciences the Aristotelian Simplicio, in particular, seems much more flexible, even admitting, “If I were
to begin my studies over again, I should try to follow the advice of Plato
and commence from mathematics.”
The Two New Sciences was far more of a mathematical treatise than
the previous Two Chief World Systems. At one point Salviati reads from
a Latin mathematical text written by “our Author,” Galileo himself.
The book opens with a discussion among Salviati and his two friends
at the Arsenal of Venice, that famous center of technology, the largest
and most advanced industrial enterprise in Europe, where craftsmen
and artisans built ships, cast cannon, twisted rope, poured tar, melted
glass, and worked at a hundred other technological and industrial activities in the service of the Venetian Republic. Galileo set the scene at the
Arsenal of Venice in order to juxtapose, rhetorically and self-consciously, the enterprises we designate as science and technology. While
the Arsenal was clearly an important device for Galileo as an extrauniversity setting for his new sciences, experts disagree over whether
Galileo came there to teach or to learn.
Historians of ideas have tended to skip over the first two “days” of
theTwo New Sciences where Galileo treats the mundane field of strength
of materials. They prefer to concentrate on days 3 and 4, where Galileo
presents his original findings on the more abstract study of motion, of
such high importance for Newton and the Scientific Revolution. But
the strength of materials is directly relevant to engineering and to the
connection of science and technology.
In days 1 and 2 of the Two New Sciences Galileo explores the general topics of cohesion of bodies and the breaking strength of materials. In day 1 he considers a potpourri of technical and theoretical problems, some old and some new. He wonders, for example, about size
effect (the theory of scaling) and why one cannot build a wooden boat
weighing a million tons. He asks what makes a marble column hold
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together. He presents an extraordinary matter theory (involving infinities of infinitesimals), and he ingeniously tackles the coherence of
bodies, surface tension, the nature of fluids, condensation and rarefaction, gilding, the explosion of gunpowder, the weight of air, the propagation of light, geometrical propositions about cylinders, mathematical paradoxes concerning infinity, and discoveries about the constancy
of the swing of the pendulum. (Galileo supposedly discovered the
isochronism of the pendulum back in the 1580s while at Pisa.) The discussion is always brilliant and entertaining.
In the second “day” of his Discourse Galileo extends the range of
ancient mechanics in considering the loaded beam. He mathematically
determines the effects of the internal stresses induced by external loads
and by the intrinsic heaviness of the beam itself. This problem had previously received little theoretical attention and might be of interest
to architects, stonemasons, carpenters, shipwrights, millwrights, and
engineers. Galileo conducted no experiments. Instead, he applied theoretical statics to the problem and, despite a misguided assumption
about the distribution of internal stresses in the beam, he arrived at the
fundamentally correct conclusion that the strength of the beam (its flexural strength) is proportional to the square of the cross-sectional depth
(AB in fig. 12.3). In the end, however, artisans and craftsmen greeted
Galileo’s results with indifference. Contemporary engineers were fully
capable of solving their problems using traditional and hard-won rules
of thumb without adopting the meager theoretical principles that contemporary science could offer.
In the more closely studied days 3 and 4 Galileo unveiled the second
of his Two New Sciences, the study of local motion, that is, motion in
the neighborhood of the earth. In a word, Galileo overthrew the traditional Aristotelian conception held by almost all contemporary scientists that the rate at which a body falls is proportional to its weight.
The medium through which bodies fall, rather than playing an essential resisting role per Aristotelian interpretations, became merely an
accidental “impediment” to ideal fall that would occur in a vacuum.
To so reconceptualize motion and fall was to strike at the core of Aristotle’s physics, and Galileo’s work in these areas proved central to
breaking down the Aristotelian worldview.
In examining the historical development of Galileo’s thought, one
must recognize a “process of discovery” as Galileo fought his way
through the maze of factors involved in motion and fall. How to conceptualize the factors, much less how to relate them, was not clear to
Galileo at the outset. As a student he adhered to Aristotle’s views. Early
on he became convinced that a rigid Aristotelian interpretation of fall
was false, and his skepticism may have led to a demonstration concerning falling bodies at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. At one point in the long
and complex process of working out his ideas, Galileo thought that the
density of the medium through which bodies fell (such as air) was a key
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factor in determining how fast they fall. By 1604 he had come to believe
that all bodies would fall at the same speed in a vacuum and that the
distance a body covers in free fall is measured by the square of the time.
But in 1604 he envisioned the right law for the wrong reason, thinking (mistakenly) that the velocity of fall is proportional to the distance
covered, rather than time passed (as he finally concluded). Only after
returning to his old work in 1633 did Galileo arrive at his mature view
that velocity is proportional to time elapsed, not distance covered; the
distance a body falls in free fall remains proportional to the square of
the time of fall (distance s ∝ t2). This is Galileo’s law of falling bodies.
For Galileo, all bodies (independent of their weight) fall at the same
accelerated rate in a vacuum.
Our knowledge of the “correct” answers may obscure Galileo’s
intellectual achievement. Heavy objects do seem to fall faster than light
ones, as Aristotelian theory would predict—a heavy book reaches the
ground before a light sheet of paper, for example. Many factors are
involved in fall: the weight of a body, or, as we would say, its “mass”
and “momentum,” the latter measured in several ways; the medium a
Fig. 12.3. The strength of
materials. While under
house arrest in 1638
Galileo, at the age of 74,
published the Two New
Sciences in which he formulated the law of falling
bodies and deduced that
the strength of a loaded
beam is proportional to
the square of the depth of
its cross-section.
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body moves in, the density or specific gravity of an object, the buoyancy of the medium, the shape of the falling body, the resistance it
might offer (and different measurements of same), the distance covered, time elapsed, initial velocity (or speed), average velocity, terminal
velocity, and accelerations of various types. Which factors are essential? Galileo faced formidable conceptual problems in coming to terms
with free fall.
Two further points need to be made concerning Galileo’s fundamental contribution to theoretical mechanics. First, his law is a kinematical law, that is, it renders a description of motion, not an account of
the causes of motion. Galileo’s law describes how bodies fall; it does
not explain why they fall. In this way Galileo self-consciously avoided
any discussion of cause. As a methodological maneuver, the beauty and
power of the move derive from what can be gleaned from kinematics
alone without inquiring into causes. In effect, Galileo is saying, look
what we can accomplish by concentrating on a mathematical description of phenomena without confusing matters by arguing over causes
of phenomena.
The second point concerns the fact that all of the kinematical rules
Galileo announces in the Two New Sciences, including the germ of his
law of falling bodies, were, as previously noted in chapter 9, discovered and enunciated three centuries earlier by Nicole Oresme and a
group of late medieval scholastics at Oxford University known as the
Mertonians or the Calculators. There were differences, however; the
most important was, as Galileo himself was quick to point out, that
while the Mertonians speculated about abstract possibilities for motion,
Galileo believed what he had discovered applied to the real world and
to the way bodies actually fall here on earth.
Days 3 and 4 of the Two New Sciences also speak to the question of
the role of experiment in Galileo’s science and about how he satisfied
himself that his mathematical formulations concerning motion apply
in nature while the Mertonian-like ideas remained merely speculative.
Galileo is often referred to as the “father of experimental science,” and
indeed, doesn’t the popular stereotype portray Galileo “experimenting” by dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Alas, it has
proven all too easy to (mis)cast Galileo as the father of the “experimental method” or the “Scientific Method.” The advent of experimental science marked an important development in science in the seventeenth century to which Galileo contributed mightily, but simplistic
and uncritical readings of Galileo’s work misplace the role of experiment in his science and they reinforce myths about how science works.
Galileo decidedly did not operate according to some cliché of the “Scientific Method” that, stereotypically, has scientists formulating hypotheses, testing them through experiment, and deciding their truth or falsity on the basis, simply, of experimental results. The reality of Galilean
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experiment is more interesting, more complex, and historically more
With regard to the Leaning Tower experiment, as a junior professor
at the University of Pisa between 1589 and 1592, Galileo supposedly
dropped balls from the Tower before an audience of students and professors in order to demonstrate the falsity of Aristotle’s theories about
heavy bodies falling faster than light bodies. One can question whether
such an experiment actually took place because the first written record
that Galileo performed any demonstration at Pisa dates only from 1657,
15 years after Galileo’s death. The popular image is surely wrong that
Galileo was trying to prove his law of falling bodies experimentally. We
know that Galileo did not arrive at a formulation of his law until 1604,
so he could not have been “proving” it in an experiment a decade before
in Pisa. But he may well have performed a demonstration to illustrate
problems with the Aristotelian analysis of fall.
The precise role of experiment in Galileo’s science and the reality of
how Galileo came to reject Aristotle are much more complex and
nuanced than the cliché of Galileo dropping balls from the Leaning
Tower of Pisa would suggest. The way Galileo arrived at his law of
falling bodies and associated kinematics did indeed involve considerable experimentation in the sense that he repeatedly made all manner
of tests and trials in coming to grips with the phenomena. He left voluminous manuscript records of such experiments. Galileo was a deft experimenter, manually dexterous, and expert with equipment, as his facility for building telescopes also demonstrates. Experiment in this sense
figures prominently in Galileo’s approaches to research. But formally,
Galileo reserved experiment not to test his propositions, as we might
think retrospectively, but to confirm and illustrate his principles. In a
word, Galileo’s experiments do not confirm hypotheses, they demonstrate conclusions previously arrived at through analytical reasoning.
In a key passage in the Two New Sciences, after laying out his rules
concerning motion, Galileo has Simplicio inquire, “But I am still doubtful whether this is the acceleration employed by nature in the motion
of her falling heavy bodies [and I ask you to present] some experiment
. . . that agree[s] in various cases with the demonstrated conclusions.”
To which Salviati replies, “Like a true scientist, you make a very reasonable demand, for this is usual and necessary in those sciences which
apply mathematical demonstrations to physical conclusions, as may be
seen among writers on optics, astronomers, mechanics, musicians, and
others who confirm their principles with sensory experiences.”
With that Galileo turns to his celebrated inclined plane experiment.
He first describes his experimental equipment: a wooden beam 24 feet
long, three inches thick, with a channel chiseled in one edge, smoothed,
and lined with parchment. One end of the beam is raised two to four
feet, and a rounded bronze ball allowed to roll down the channel. Two
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paragraphs later he describes his timing method: he collected water running from a container and measured its weight to determine a time interval. It hardly needs to be pointed out that a not-perfectly-spherical
or uniform bronze ball rolling and rattling down and over a vellumlined channel no matter how smooth could not exactly produce the predicted results. Too many “impediments” were at play in the experiment. Under the control of the human eye and hand, Galileo’s ingenious
water device doubtless slipped a drop or two here and there, and inaccuracies stemming from measurement even in a delicate balance had to
throw off the results still further. Yet Galileo goes on unashamedly to
claim that “by experiments repeated a full hundred times, the spaces
were always found to be to one another as the squares of the times . . .
these operations repeated time and again never differed by any notable
amount.” But he presents no data, and he does not tell us what “any
notable amount” means. The community of scientists in France later
had cause to doubt the validity of Galileo’s claimed results when they
tried to replicate his experiment based on his text. Galileo, however,
took his own report of the experiment as sufficient evidence to confirm
what mathematical analysis previously demonstrated as true. Beyond
indicating the distinctive role of experiment in Galileo’s science, the
inclined plane experiment illustrates the complexities of how experiments work in practice rather than according to some abstract theory
of “scientific method.”
Finally, in day 4 of the Two New Sciences, Galileo extends his considerations of motion to cover projectiles and projectile motion. The
figure shows the conceptual model Galileo used to analyze projectile
motion. For Galileo the motion of a thrown or shot object is compounded of two other motions. On the one hand, the projected body
falls downward according to the law of falling bodies presented in day
3. On the other hand, it moves inertially along a horizontal line, meaning that it moves of its own accord without any separate mover acting
on it. Galileo’s concept of inertia, first presented in his Letters on Sunspots in 1613, requires further clarification, but its revolutionary implications should already be clear. As we recall, for “violent” motion Aristotle required a mover. How to provide such a mover in the case of a
projectile after it separates from its launcher had been a nagging problem for Aristotelian mechanics for 2,000 years. Galileo offered a revolutionary reformulation that eliminated the problem altogether. For
Galileo, and later for Descartes and Newton, no mover is required, for
there is nothing to explain in accounting for the natural inertial motion
of bodies. Such is the stuff of scientific revolutions.
A crucial and revealing difference separates Galileo’s view of inertia
from the view later adopted by Descartes and Newton. Whereas the
latter (and modern science generally) adopts rectilinear or straight-line
inertia, Galileo held to horizontal or so-called circular inertia. He believed that bodies moving inertially would travel, not in straight lines,
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but in curves following the horizon, in fact, in circles around the earth.
For Galileo the horizontal line is not straight, but a segment of a circle
around the earth’s center, that is, the “horizon.” Galileo’s revolutionary “discovery” (or “invention,” if you prefer) of inertia removed a
major objection to Copernicanism, for if objects move inertially they
will not appear to be left behind as the earth moves, and the concept
contributed forcefully to the overthrow of Aristotle and the Aristotelian
worldview. That Galileo held to circular inertia would be an oddity of
history, except that it provides yet another instance of the continuing
power of circles on the imagination of scientists well into the seventeenth century.
Galileo drew the corollary from his analysis of the compound motion
of projectiles that the resulting curve is a parabola—at least in theory.
(Ironically, it would be a parabola only if the earth were flat.) Galileo’s
discovery of the parabolic motion of projectiles represents another
notable achievement, and this one offered obvious practical possibilities for artillery and ballistics. He recognized such applied uses, and in
day 4 he published detailed mathematical tables of elevation and range
for gunners derived wholly from theory. The case would seem a golden
instance of theoretical science being turned to an applied end but, alas,
Galileo’s theoretical understanding had no impact on gunnery in practice. By the time Galileo published his tables, cannons and artillery had
reshaped the face of Europe for over 300 years. Skilled gunners and
military engineers had long since worked out artillery “rules,” tables,
and procedures for hitting their targets. The technology of cannonry
may have been more influential on Galileo’s science than the other way
Galileo knew that problems remained in the realm of mechanics. He
Fig. 12.4. Parabolic
motion of projectiles. By
separating projectile
motion into two components, Galileo could show
that projected bodies follow parabolic paths.
Along the vertical axis a
body falls with uniformly
accelerated motion; it
moves inertially with a
uniform, constant speed
on the horizontal axis;
when these two motions
are combined, the body
traces the curve of a
parabola. Galileo thus
reconceptualized the
centuries-old problem of
projectile motion, recasting it in something like its
modern form.
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understood very well, for example, that a ball of cotton behaves differently from a ball of lead, and he groped his way toward notions of what
we would call “force” and “momentum.” But Galileo never got beyond
initial speculations about these matters, and at one point in day 4 of
the Two New Sciences he says, almost nostalgically, “I should still like
to find a way of measuring this force of impact.” That work—the measurement of force—would come after Galileo, with Isaac Newton.
Galileo went completely blind, and doctors withheld his beloved wine.
He died in 1642, the very year Newton was born. His erstwhile friend,
Pope Urban VIII, prohibited any monument to his memory.
The trial and punishment of Galileo did not end scientific activity in
Italy in the second half of the seventeenth century, but the case severely
dampened the level and quality of contemporary Italian science. The
atmosphere in Italy remained repressive, and church authorities were
vigilant. Copernicanism and grand cosmological theorizing remained
off-limits, and Italian scientists avoided them in favor of safer endeavors like strictly observational astronomy. A tolerance toward Galileo
emerged only a hundred years after his death with an Italian edition of
his works sanctioned by the liberal Pope Benedict XIV. The Catholic
Church authorized the teaching of Copernicus only in 1822, and Copernicus was finally taken off the Index in 1835. Galileo himself was
not fully rehabilitated until the 1990s.
Galileo and the patronage system are partly to blame for the failure
of a Galilean school to take hold in Italy. Especially in the initial controversies in the 1610s, Galileo had followers and, as something of a
patron in his own right, he succeeded in placing a number of them,
including Benedetto Castelli (1578–1643) as professor of mathematics
at the University of Pisa. Because he was a courtier, however, he did not
train students. Vincenzio Viviani (1622–1703) and Evangelista Torricelli (1608–47) joined the master as copyists and assistants only in the
last few years of his life. The younger mathematician Francesco Bonaventura Cavalieri (1598–1647) was a true pupil, and Galileo’s son,
Vincenzio Galilei (1606–49), also carried on his father’s work, especially in the development of the pendulum clock. But Galileo’s few direct scientific descendants, excepting Viviani, had passed from the scene
by 1650. The patronage system robbed him of offspring.
With the waning of Italian science after 1633, a characteristic feature of the period of the Scientific Revolution is the geographical movement of scientific activity northward out of Italy and into the Atlantic
states—France, Holland, and England. An active scientific community
of independent amateurs arose in France and included such luminaries
as Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), Pierre Fermat (1601–65), Blaise Pascal (1623–62), and René Descartes (1596–1650). Although they were
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insulated from the direct power of the church in Rome, Galileo’s trial
by the Inquisition produced a chilling effect on French scientific intellectuals. Descartes, for example, suspended publication of his Copernican treatise, Le Monde, in 1633.
René Descartes inherited the mantel of intellectual leadership for the
new science. Trained by the Jesuits, Descartes was a polymath genius
and soldier of fortune who retired at the age of 32 to take up a contemplative life devoted to philosophy and science. Part of Descartes’s
fame stems from his achievements in algebra and analytical geometry,
including the introduction of “Cartesian” coordinates. He also produced original work in optics and meteorology, and he demonstrated
his concern for how scientific knowledge is produced in his historic Discourse on Method (1637). Descartes likewise wrote on theology and
metaphysics and is often hailed as the father of modern philosophy. For
our purposes Descartes’s importance derives from the fact that he developed a complete cosmology and world system to replace Aristotle’s and
competing alternatives that were at play in the early decades of the seventeenth century.
In coming to grips with the state of science and philosophy in his day,
Descartes proposed a completely mechanical view of the world, and his
mechanization of the universe represented a radical departure. For
Descartes, the world and everything in it functions as a great machine
linked and governed by the laws of mechanics and of impact. On a cosmological scale he pictured moons carried around planets and planets
carried around the sun in great whirlpools of aetherial matter; his Principles of Philosophy (1644) elaborated this heliocentric vortex theory.
In the realm of physiology and medicine Descartes provided a rational,
mechanical alternative to traditional Aristotelian-Galenic accounts.
Although his system was mathematically vague and open to critical
challenges, Descartes may be fairly said to have capped the Scientific
Revolution, in that Cartesian natural philosophy subsumed all the controversies raised over the century since Copernicus and encompassed
all the discoveries of the new science. Even more, Descartes provided
a comprehensive explanatory alternative to Aristotle and all other competing systems. Whether Descartes was right was the only issue in science after his death in 1650.
Descartes lived and worked for two decades in the Netherlands, that
Protestant republic famous for its social and intellectual tolerance. The
Dutch republic produced its own outstanding contributors as part of
the northward movement of the Scientific Revolution, including the
mathematician and engineer Simon Stevin (1548–1620), the atomist
Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), and most notably Christiaan Huygens
(1629–95), perhaps the foremost Cartesian and spokesman for the
new mechanical science in the second half of the seventeenth century.
The Low Countries likewise became the locus of pioneering work
using the microscope. The drapier-turned-scientist Anton van LeeuCRIME AND PUNISHMENT OF GALILEO GALILEI 243
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wenhoek (1632–1723) achieved international renown for uncovering
a heretofore hidden and unknown “world of the very small.” The novelties he discovered included observing blood corpuscles, spermatozoa,
and other minute “animalcules.” His countryman Jan Swammerdam
(1637–80) likewise pushed the microscope to new limits, particularly
in his delicate dissections and preparations of plants and insects. These
trailblazing Dutch microscopists were joined by the Italian Marcello
Malpighi (1628–94) and the Englishman Robert Hooke (1635–1703),
whose Micrographia appeared in London in 1665. All of these early
investigators used single-lens beads for their microscopes, and technique proved crucial for success. But unlike its cousin instrument, the
telescope, which became universally accepted and an essential tool in
astronomy, the microscope raised more questions than it answered for
seventeenth-century observers and theorists. What one “sees” through
the microscope represents a complex interplay of ideas and images, and
agreement over what was seen and what the images said about insect
anatomy, capillary circulation, or embryology, for example, was not
forthcoming. The diverging fates of the microscope and the telescope
Fig. 12.5. Descartes’s system of the world. The
constitution of the universe was an open question. The great French
philosopher and mathematician René Descartes
responded by envisioning
a universe filled with an
aetherial fluid sweeping
the planets and other
heavenly bodies around
in vortices. The figure
depicts a comet crossing
the vortex of our solar
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in the seventeenth century suggest that shared intellectual frameworks
are required for establishing research traditions, not the instruments
themselves. Only in the nineteenth century, and under a different set of
conditions, did the compound microscope become a standard piece of
laboratory equipment.
England was another Protestant maritime state that fostered a community of men who pursued science after Galileo. We have already
mentioned the court physician William Gilbert (1544–1603) and his
influential work on the magnet. We saw, too, that the English physician, William Harvey (1578–1657) made the revolutionary discovery
of the circulation of the blood in 1618. One can likewise point to Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the lord chancellor of England who proved
such an effective spokesman for the new science; the aristocrat and experimental chemist Robert Boyle (1627–91); and, of course, Isaac Newton (1642–1727), just to name a few of the luminaries of seventeenthcentury English science. Institutions facilitated the growth of science in
contemporary England, notably, the Royal College of Physicians (1518),
Gresham College (a new institute with salaried professors founded in
1598), and, later in the seventeenth century, the Royal Society of London (1662) and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (1675). Royal
funding for new scientific chairs at Oxford (geometry-astronomy in
1619 and natural philosophy in 1621) and later at Cambridge (1663)
likewise helps explain the flourishing of English science in the later seventeenth century.
Ideology and Utility
Although not absolutely new, claims for the social utility of science
began to be widely asserted in the seventeenth century, the conviction
that science and scientific activities can promote human welfare and
should therefore be encouraged. The ideology was activist and contrasted with the Hellenic view of the practical irrelevance of natural
philosophy and the medieval view of science as the subservient handmaiden to theology.
The ideology for the social utility of science sprang from more than
one historical source. Renaissance magic and Hermeticism, with their
belief in the possibility of controlling forces that permeate the universe,
represent one route from which emerged the doctrine that knowledge
can and should be made useful and practical. Alchemy, in both its medicinal and metallurgical forms, exemplifies another. The Neoplatonist
and humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463–94), for example, saw magic
as simply the practical part of natural science. Although he walked a
tightrope in these regards, Giambattista Della Porta also favored the
idea that natural magic held powers useful to princes and governments.
Astrology and the occult formed a notable part of the reward systems
of patrons: Tycho turned out astrological forecasts, and Kepler made
Bertoloni, M. D. E. I., Dorn, H., & McClellan, J. E. I. (2006). Science and technology in world history : An introduction. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-22 20:46:27. Copyright © 2006. Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
a career as a court astrologer. Philip II, the level-headed ruler of Spain
and the Spanish Empire from 1556 to 1598, became deeply involved
in the occult. He patronized numerous alchemists, and he built a huge
alchemical laboratory capable of manufacturing alchemical medicines
in volume. Charles II of England possessed his own alchemical laboratory. Reliable reports circulated of the alchemical multiplication of
gold, and the utility of occult studies remained widely accepted through
the 1600s.
The perception of science as useful knowledge found its foremost ideologue in Francis Bacon. Bacon pointed to gunpowder, the compass,
silk, and the printing press as examples of the kind of worthwhile inventions potentially forthcoming from systematic investigation and discovery. (Bacon neglected to say that these technologies arose independently of natural philosophy but, no matter, for future scientific research
promised similarly useful devices and techniques.) Among the castes of
laborers Bacon envisioned for a scientific utopia, he set aside one group,
the “Dowry men,” especially to search for practical benefits. In categorizing different types of experiments, Bacon likewise specified that
“experiments of fruit” must be combined with “experiments of light”
to produce practical outcomes. His influence in the world of science
was largely posthumous, but it proved no less powerful for that.
Descartes, too, was influential in advocating what he called a “practical philosophy” and the idea that knowledge should be put to use “for
the general good of all men.” Descartes considered medicine a principal arena where useful advances and practical applications of theory
might be found. Later in the seventeenth century Robert Boyle likewise
enunciated the goal of new medical therapies derived from experimental philosophy. Notwithstanding the fact that ties between contemporary scientific theory and effective medical technique were tenuous at
best and largely remained so until the twentieth century, the seventeenth-century ideologues of the new science were quick to hitch their
wagons to the draught horse of medical practice.
Deep in Book II of the Principia Mathematica even Isaac Newton
made an argument for utility. After completing a complex demonstration concerning hydrodynamics and the shape of bodies producing the
least resistance while moving in fluids, he commented dryly that “this
proposition I conceive may be of use in the building of ships.” Newtonian theory—the result of pure science—stood far removed from
economic reality and any practical application, but the case brings
home the distinction between what the new ideology claimed and what
it could deliver.
As part of their ideology, seventeenth-century thinkers likewise expressed new attitudes about nature and the exploitation of nature.
Bacon and Descartes separately voiced the view that humans should be
the master and possessor of nature, that nature and the world’s natural
resources should be vigorously exploited for the benefit of humankind—
Bertoloni, M. D. E. I., Dorn, H., & McClellan, J. E. I. (2006). Science and technology in world history : An introduction. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-22 20:46:27. Copyright © 2006. Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
that is, those who own or control knowledge. The notion that nature
was subject to human dominion possessed biblical authority and was
already operative in the Middle Ages. But a distinctive imagery of the
violent rape and torture of nature as an aspect of scientific practice came
to the fore in seventeenth-century thought on these matters. Bacon, for
example, asserted bluntly that “Nature must be taken by the forelock.”
The notions that science is useful, that science is a public good, and
that knowledge is power have ruled as cultural leitmotifs in the West
since the seventeenth century and everywhere since the nineteenth. The
further implication was twofold: science and scientists deserved support, and the power they brought should be used for the commonweal.
The status of the old ideas that natural philosophy was for natural
philosophers or subservient to theology diminished. Evidently the new
notions were more consistent with the interests of the new centralized
states and the development of merchant capitalism in Europe.
Bertoloni, M. D. E. I., Dorn, H., & McClellan, J. E. I. (2006). Science and technology in world history : An introduction. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-22 20:46:27. Copyright © 2006. Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
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Bertoloni, M. D. E. I., Dorn, H., & McClellan, J. E. I. (2006). Science and technology in world history : An introduction. Retrieved from
Created from apus on 2020-01-22 20:46:27. Copyright © 2006. Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.

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